Eating floor sweepings bought from maize millers and keeping a death watch over family members who consumed poisonous wild foods is what some families in a remote area of Zimbabwe have had to do to survive the country's food crisis.
As food security experts gathered this week in South Africa to discuss the regional crisis, a Save the Children report focusing on the remote communities of Binga and Nyaminyami in the northwest of Zimbabwe, documented the harrowing measures some families took to pull through.
Binga and Nyaminyami in the western Zambezi valley, where the majority of the population were resettled during the construction of the Kariba Dam, are two of the least developed districts in Zimbabwe.
The area has low rainfall, which hampers agricultural production, and is far from major markets. With high transport costs, the community pays more for limited supplies and receives less for goods they try to sell outside the area.
The report said that April 2002 to March 2003 was one of the worst periods in recent memory for the communities, due to the countrywide drought and the national shortage of maize. At times they faced inflation of 800 percent and food aid became vital for their survival.
A study in one area of Binga found that everybody fell short of their minimum food needs, with only two deliveries of maize by the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) in the whole year. A "disturbingly large" amount of money was spent on maize husks and floor sweepings from local millers. To buy food, expenditure was switched from other necessities like school fees and health care.
Wild foods played an important role in a diet that already had very little diversity. However, in addition to "normal" wild foods, soup made from a root with sedative powers was also eaten. Because of these sedative properties, families reported having a dedicated person to wake other family members every half an hour to ensure they had not died, the report said.
The report observed that if grain had been available from the GMB at the government-controlled price, everybody could have met their minimum food requirements. As it was, even the better-off had to cut back on buying seeds and fertiliser and could no longer pay school fees.
Declining school income was cited by two headmasters as contributing to the falling quality of education because they could not afford the necessary supplies and stationery.
The availability of livestock played a crucial part in food security for some families. They sold cattle, albeit at low prices, to raise cash when they were deprived of the usual income from agricultural labour due to the bad agricultural year. Otherwise they thatched huts and did other work for cash.
Survival tactics in other areas included using grain purchases to brew beer to raise money. Researchers were told that beer was seen as more of a nutrition source than a luxury, and was often the only "food" for heads of households who said that being drunk took their hunger pangs away.
Families also resorted to borrowing maize from neighbours who could spare food and then reimbursing them when they received their relief food.
Households coping with the effects of HIV/AIDS had even lower crop yields. Crop production was particularly badly affected when the household head was ill during the planting season.
Crafts like basketry, or trading small items and bartering kept some households going.
In households where parents were too ill, children did all the work with no adult to help them. Neighbours kept a check on the children but could only provide financial support when the household head was very sick - but even this was treated as a loan and had to be paid back.
The report said the situation only started improving by late March, when food aid flows reached a peak and people began consuming green maize and vegetables from their fields.
For children in particular, it meant less time looking for wild food in the bush or herding animals for cash, and they did not have to skip as many school lessons.
However, Save the Children warned that while malnutrition rates were kept below standard emergency thresholds, in the coming year the situation again looks likely to be bad.
"Although national crop production has increased this year compared to last year, it remains below the poor level of two years ago," the report said. "This does not bode well for grain availability and affordability in remote districts, such as Binga and Nyaminyami."
Details on the regional crisis
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